Hitting the Books, at Home and Beyond
That collective sigh of relief you heard last week came from parents all over Maine watching the yellow school bus (or the beat-up family clunker) ferrying their children off to their first day of classes in academic year 2009-2010. It's arguable whether a summer that never happened can come to an end, but indisputably autumn is upon us and it's time for the kids — and the Congress — to hit the books.
This week the President gave two much-anticipated speeches, each attended by the sort of hysteria from the lunatic Right (which these days is barely distinguishable from the mainstream Right) we've come to expect. Of the two, Wednesday's big health-care address was no doubt of greater political moment. Yet it seems to me — and I'm not trying to be contrarian — that in taking up the issue of education one day earlier, the man had his priorities in order.
Here's how I look at it. The heath care conundrum is solvable. It's clear to every rational, well-meaning person in America (by whom I mean, everyone except insurance-industry lobbyists and Sarah Palin Republicans) that our health care system needs repair, on both moral and economic grounds. There are any number of models around the industrialized world of systems that work fairly and effectively at a cost much lower than ours. We can pick and choose among them for a model to emulate, or we can design our own from the ground up. It's less a question of policy than of political will, which has thus far been sorely lacking.
Maybe we'll get the job done and maybe we won't. Maybe our own Senator Olympia Snowe will be some kind of magical catalyst in crafting salable legislation. But really, folks, this isn't rocket science.
Education isn't rocket science, either. It's not any kind of science at all. It is an utterly mysterious process that defies rational management either from above or from below.
The recent fashion for such things as standardized testing, universal standards, and learning objectives spelled out in excruciating detail has accomplished certain things — we are now able to objectify our failings with greater exactitude, our teachers are groaning under an unprecedented load of paperwork, and our children are spending a lot of time learning to pass a damn test — but it hasn't improved our educational system one iota. So much for "from above."
"From below," as a practical matter, is much, much worse. Grass-roots efforts to impose some kind of populist imprint on public education has taken such grotesque forms as an assault on teaching basic science, perennial efforts to strip school libraries of everything from Shakespeare to books "showing women behaving in nontraditional ways," and tea-party-style efforts to whip schools into shape by clobbering their budgets. Viz, the latest version of TABOR, dubbed by the Maine Education Association "another horror show."
How to make our schools better, then? It beats the heck out of me — and I'm a teacher. The President touched upon the elusive nature of this particular quest on Tuesday when he told schoolchildren that "we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, the best schools in the world -- and none of it will make a difference, none of it will matter..." He went on to emphasize the kids' own responsibilities to show up for school, pay attention, and do their homework. But I'd push it farther. I'd say none of it will matter unless we change our collective mindset about education. Above all, we've got to drop this quest for a magic bullet. And we've got to (as Mr. Obama noted in his other speech this week) replace acrimony with civility. Teachers aren't the enemy here, nor administrators, nor school boards, nor anxious parents.
In my own family, we've had a variety of educational experiences, most of them very good. My younger kids, Callie and Tristan, spent grades K-8 in little Lincolnville Central School during a period of upheaval that saw the school relocate twice to new quarters, then went on to a larger regional high school, with semester-long side trips to a progressive program called City Term in New York. My older son Matt, who grew up in Arlington, Virginia, went to large schools with wildly varying demographics reflecting the unique diversity of that area. (His middle-school peers were predominantly black and Hispanic; his crowded high school boasted students from more than 90 countries around the world.) And I teach English at a small but very cool private high school in Rockland.
All of these schools work — with, of course, the sort of caveat suggested by the President. Not because of any sort of pedagogical theory, either cutting-edge or retrograde, but because of the ancient and unfathomable alchemy of the classroom: teachers who like teaching, and students who are open to learning. Any effort to better our educational system ought to start right there: neither above nor below, but squarely in the middle.